My grandpa, Irving Katuna, was born on January 12, 1929 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a Saturday, and it was cold. A light dusting of snow passed through Pennsylvania the previous night and the temperature stayed just above freezing the day he was born. I’m not sure how many of his eleven older siblings were still living in the house then, but I picture my infant grandfather passed around to many happy hands when he came home.
Wilkes-Barre is a coal mining town about 120 miles west of New York City. Its population swelled to a peak of 80,000 around 1930 and declined through the depression and the aftermath of World War II. My grandpa was 11 when the draft was instituted in 1940 and was still too young to serve when the draft ended in 1946. Only about 30,000 people live in Wilkes-Barre today. Industry left, and so did my grandpa.
He matriculated to UCLA but graduated from UC Berkeley and settled in San Francisco. He married my grandma, Berna Mendell, after meeting her at a dance at the Jewish Community Center. They quickly had four children: Linda (my mom), Judy, Bruce, and Brad. Along the way, he became an educator, serving in the administration of a high school in San Francisco that had mostly Black students.
My grandpa’s Jewish faith, along with his many years teaching Black students, brought him to Selma, Alabama in 1964. He accompanied five rabbis to support the Montgomery bus boycott and show solidarity of the Jewish community with a popular Christian pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. My grandpa and these rabbis marched and were imprisoned with Dr. King, an experience that meant the world to him.
My grandpa spent less than a week in Selma but it would leave an impression on him and his family for the rest of his life. My family celebrated his trip to Selma for his 80th birthday, and at 92 he had just completed writing a book about it with support from my mom and cousin Lisa.
My grandpa was opinionated and curious. He was a docent at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences. He liked pastries for breakfast and would go out of his way to pick up a scone or a bear claw from his favorite bakery. Breakfast at home usually involved cereal, which he kept in neat airtight plastic bins, and he preferred to eat it with fruit salad on top. He was a natural leader, someone who tended to reside over the organizations he volunteered for. He loved to join elder hostels, especially in Ashland, Oregon, where he attended the Shakespeare Festival with his wife Thelma for many years.
My grandpa eventually left San Francisco and settled in Rossmoor, a retirement community in Walnut Creek, where he and Thelma became members of local Democratic and Jewish organizations and discovered the best local Chinese restaurants. Lucid and curious until the end, Irving loved to read and talk to his family.
My house is only a couple of miles away from their Rossmoor apartment and over the last few years we settled into a routine of bringing Chinese food over and eating dinner together: sweet and sour fish filets for Thelma, tomato beef chow mein for Irv, and vegetable chow mein for me and my girls. When COVID hit, I’d drop the food off and leave, aware that I wouldn’t know which of these dinners would be our last.
Grandpa Irv was immensely proud of all of us. And we were proud of him too. He passed away early in the morning on Tuesday, April 27, 2021.
Farewell, Grandpa Irv. We will miss you.